Global Pandemics

 On July 19, 2019 WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).  “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts.  We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system”. 

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A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

“How could we deem ‘realistic’ a project of modernization that has ‘forgotten’ for two centuries to anticipate the reactions of the terraqueous globe to human actions? How could we accept as “objective’ economic theories that are incapable of integrating into their calculations the scarcity of resources whose exhaustion it had been their mission to predict? How could we speak of “effectiveness’ with respect to technological systems that have not managed to integrate into their design a way to last more than a few decades?  How could we call “rationalist’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children?” – Bruno Latour

Our rationality is leading us…to where? If rationality is a mental discipline, a method, then we must ask what purpose does it serve?  Where does it begin and where does it go to? If we don’t know in what our rationality is rooted and where it is leading us, then what good is it?  Or if our rationality is leading us somewhere that we don’t want to go, then it is worse than useless.

The anthropologist and historian of science, Bruno Latour, has written a political essay: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. This brief but fascinating book begins by invoking the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “From the 1980’s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began to shelter themselves from the world.  We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others.  The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.” Continue reading “A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth”

How much does cruelty cost?

Some people may have caught a recent news story about animal abuse at Fair Oaks dairy farms in Indiana. The video was part of an undercover operation to show how animals are really treated at Fair Oaks Farms.  “Fairlife was launched in 2012 as a partnership between Coca-Cola, which distributes its products, and the McCloskeys’ Select Milk Producers, a co-op of dairy farms that includes Fair Oaks. The product is a form of “ultrafiltered” milk that is lactose-free and has more protein and calcium and less sugar than traditional milk.”  Fairlife and owners of Fair Oaks dairy  are being sued by a consumer of Fair life dairy products who says he was deceived by claims it provided a high caliber of care for its animals.

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The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

The Reality of Climate Change

Problems have solutions; dilemmas have consequences!  The reality of climate change can’t be avoided but the consequences for humans and other life forms can be made worse by our decisions.  There is a difference between solving problems and living with consequences.  Solving problems means we can try to fix what is wrong.  Living with consequences means we must face the reality of our situation.  The reality of climate change is already impacting the hydrologic cycle—increased precipitation, evapotranspiration, runoff, and river flow— but we can make our situation worse.

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Our mandate

The Mapuche struggle is an ecological struggle, it is a struggle for life and its continuity… We are people of the Earth, whose main mandate is to protect everything that makes existence possible, based on a spirituality connected with the natural elements. (Belén Curamil Canio of the Mapuche in Chile)

Are we perhaps the only life-form in this corner of the universe that sees things this way? Sensing ourselves to be unequivocally responsible for protecting everything that makes existence possible? Or does every variety of life feel the same way?

As individuals and as a species we tend to trust that things existed before us and will continue to exist after us. But absent the human individual or species from the picture and there is from a certain perspective no existence. We sense that we make it all possible just by being here. 

We receive the gift of coming alive from those of our kind who raise us and with gratitude we pass it on to those we have a hand in raising.  But the gift ripples horizontally too, beyond our kind. We receive life from the living Earth every day, and we in turn must daily birth and nurture the living Earth. The forests, rivers and all the things that swim, fly, creep and crawl need us as much as we need them.

So there it is, we must honour our mandate and do the right thing. Take humbly from life and give generously to life, in every breath and with every beat of our hearts. No need to ask why or from whom this mandate, or to what end. It is what it is. It is what is right.

[Image courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize]

Cigarette Butt pollution

There are many substances that get deposited on streets and little of this pollution is removed from stormwater before being dumped into rivers.  Street Department personnel spread salt and sand on icy roads in winter.  People throw trash and cigarette butts out their car window or it blows out of the bed of trucks.  Vehicles leak oil and other lubricants, tires shed hydrocarbons, and exhaust pipes emit gases and fluids.  There are many substances that unintentionally and intentionally get washed down the drains and into storm sewers that feed downstream drinking water.  All of these substances accumulate on roads along with natural debris such as sticks, leaves, and dirt.

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Four Earthly Ways of Being

I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss  protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana.  It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo.  Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself.  Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli  – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture.  More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site.  The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market.  It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command  the most sweeping view of the coastline.  This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and  intangible qualities of the little valley. Continue reading “Four Earthly Ways of Being”

Life on Earth Day

Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth.  It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth.  It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain.  And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”